Wednesday 26 October 2016

Pat Henry: Let children be children

Helicopter parenting and mobile phones at the dinner table are stifling your kids' development, says our health expert

Pat Henry

Published 17/05/2016 | 02:30

Pat Henry
Pat Henry

Very few people take a course in parenting before having children, and most of us just use our instinct when rearing them. And while we have the best intentions for our children, we can be stifling them as the little individual people they are. For example, there was a time when children had fun with the simple things like building a hideaway in the bushes, making their own adventures and planning from the time you woke on school holidays until the end of the day. I remember going to St Anne's Estate beyond Dollymount when the old mansion was still the original home of the Guinness family. It was a magical place and as children we explored the old ruins and pretended we were Count Dracula living in the big house.

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We were 10 or 11-years-old and had a real 16mm movie camera where we tried to make a Dracula movie in the estate. We even had a real coffin which we tried to put on a bus, but to no avail! We then carried it all the way to St Anne's and waited until late afternoon for the sun to go down. What great fun and adventure; it was a time for imagination.

Today's parents can be over protective. The term 'helicopter parents' sums it up - hovering about and stifling the natural playfulness that children have. There are many parents who have their children's time mapped out like a military timetable. There is no time for fun when everything is strictly scheduled. Children are supposed to be children, they are not there to fulfil your own lost dreams and ambitions of being the next Tiger Woods.

Children will rebel and eventually stop all the activities if put under too much pressure. Even in schools there can be overtraining in sports. A young body is not meant to train every day. They need physical and mental rest time.

What I suggest is to pick one activity and help them to be the best at it, with encouragement. There are also many activities and summer camps out there. For example one sport I think is fantastic is gymnastics, for both boys and girls. It teaches timing, flexibility, agility, strength and team work and it is a sport you can carry on all your life.

However there are so many fantastic sports to choose from and it's advisable to avoid pushing them into doing everything. Find out what they have a natural flair for and what they enjoy.

One other really worrying influence on children lately is, in my opinion, youth magazines which are very much geared to encourage them to be aware of their figures and shape. It's not uncommon to hear young boys and girls talking about their shape or their six-pack.

Awareness of food and exercise is great, but not when it overshadows everything else.

Meal time should be a family time where everyone sits down together and enjoys a nice meal and conversation. Meal times are a good way to hear all their news and teach siblings to converse with each other. It's so important in learning the art of conversation from a very early age and teaching them that listening, as well as talking, is a skill that a lot of people just don't have. So keep the phones and tablets away from the dinner table.

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